Seven years ago, Paul Desiderio – who hails from Liloan, Cebu – moved out from his comfort zone to Diliman and study and play for the University of the Philippines.
A year later and some 30 minutes away from Liloan – Compostela to be exact – Cherry Rondina had the same dream. She moved to Manila, heading to España as she tried to achieve her dream with the University of Santo Tomas.
“Si Sisi, from Cebu rin. Halos magkalapit lang kami ng town. Nung high school, nakikita ko siyang naglalaro sa Liloan,” recalled Desiderio.
Little did they know that they would inspire a new generation of student-athletes seven years later.
Standing at 5-foot-10 and 5-foot-6 respectively, Desiderio and Rondina were seen as too small for the sports they chose. Both basketball and volleyball are seen as the games of giants.
“Sa nakikita ko kay Desiderio, parang pareho kami ng pinaglabanan,” said Rondina.
When Desiderio arrived in UP, there was little fanfare. The men’s basketball program of the proud institution was suffering defeat after defeat.
Yes, the program was suffering. And it tested Desiderio’s will.
“Ikaw, player ka from Cebu, zero (wins), fourteen (losses) ang start mo – ine-expect mo lilipat talaga ako ng school,” disclosed Desiderio.
“Pero nagpasensya lang ako.”
Across town, Rondina was winning gold in the beach volleyball scene. But when it came to the indoor courts, the once-proud program struggled to regain their lost glory, resulting in dwindling attendance from the community.
Still, Rondina persevered.
“Nangarap lang talaga ako noon. Who would’ve thought na aabot ako dito, ‘di ba?,” expressed Rondina.
“Kaunti lang naman ang sumu-support sa akin dati. Hindi naman nag-matter yun. Ang gusto ko lang talaga is ma-maximize yung career ko.”
The UAAP Season 81 tournament was the swansong for both Desiderio and Rondina.
Though deemed too small or too weak, they made it to this point. And for everything their schools had given to them, they wanted to give it back.
This season was their last chance of doing it.
“Nilalaban namin yung team namin and we love our sport. Nalalabas namin lahat ng passion namin and diskarte. Pareho kami paano ilaro yung team, paano tulungan,” said Rondina, who only made the Final Four once
“Pinakita namin talaga pano lumaban ang mga Bisaya.”
Whatever the fighting spirit of the ‘Bisaya’ was, they showed it. And with it came the crowd.
For every shot Desiderio knocked down, the Maroons would shout, “Atin ‘to!”
For every spike that Rondina dropped, the Tigresses believed, “Kami naman!”
As one, the Iskos and the Thomasians willed Desiderio and Rondina, respectively, to slay giant after giant en route to the Finals. They lifted the two underdogs to unprecedented heights.
“Sobrang saya ko kasi yung community ko, nagkaisa para dun. Start pa lang yun ng journey namin sa UP,” said Desiderio, who was instrumental in ending UP’s 32-year Finals drought in Men’s Basketball.
“Kasi sobrang sarap sa feeling na those people na nagchi-cheer sa’yo, nandiyan sila lagi,” said Rondina, who was hailed as the MVP after ending UST’s eight-year drought in Women’s Volleyball.
“Alam mo ‘yung feeling na ang laki ng tiwala na binigay nila sa akin. Nafi-feel ko talaga yung love, and I love them all, sobra.“
Four years after having their patience tested and their wills almost broken, both Desiderio and Rondina made it to the final stage of their respective events. It is at this level where heroes are born and legends are made.
But both stalwarts faced a giant in Ateneo.
Though they shot and spiked to their limits, the odds were just too much.
Desiderio and the Fighting Maroons fell to the Blue Eagles in two games. Meanwhile, Rondina and the Golden Tigresses succumbed to the Lady Eagles in three games.
Still, when they made their final farewells and closed the chapters in their respective books, they were showered with cheers and adulation. ‘Atin ‘to‘ and ‘Kami naman’ were chanted in unison as they bid goodbye.
Yes, they still had their fairy tale ending.
“Never give up.
“Think positive lang parati, na kahit na yung nawawala na kami. Yun ang problema namin dati sa UP, nilalamangan na kami, nawawalan na kami ng gana at tuloy-tuloy na yun,” the 22-year-old Desiderio reflected.
“Happy naman ako na nabago yun. Laging sinasabi ng teammates ko, ‘Atin ‘to,’ kahit hindi na ako yung nagsasabi. Sobrang saya ko na,” he shared, as Atin ‘To became the battlecry of every Isko and Iska out there.
“Sabi ko nga sa kanila, ‘Sa susunod na maglalaro kayo, ‘wag na ‘wag niyong ipapahiya ang UST kasi mahal ko yan.’ Make sure you fight for UST lahat-lahat. Kailangan niyo mahalin ang UST the way I love UST,” disclosed the 22-year-old Rondina, as Kami Naman has become the ballad of every Thomasino and Thomasina.
“Ibang feeling maging Thomasian.”
Championship trophies are temporary victories, but legacies last lifetimes. And the legacies that Desiderio and Rondina have left to their schools have changed cultures and made history.